"Violence and the Sacred"
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René Noël Théophile Girard (; French: [ʒiʁaʁ]; 25 December 1923 – 4 November 2015) was a French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science whose work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy. Girard was the author of nearly thirty books, with his writings spanning many academic domains. Although the reception of his work is different in each of these areas, there is a growing body of secondary literature on his work and his influence on disciplines such as literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, and philosophy.
Girard’s main contribution to philosophy, and in turn to other disciplines, was in the field of epistemological and ethical systems of desire. Girard believed that human development occurs initially through a process of observational mimicry, where the infant develops desire through a process of learning to copy adult behaviour, fundamentally linking acquisition of identity, knowledge and material wealth to the development of a desire to have something others possess.
All conflict, competition and rivalry therefore originate in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), which eventually reaches destructive stages of conflict both between individuals and social groups that requires them to blame someone or something in order to diffuse conflict through the scapegoat mechanism. Unable to assume responsibility or engage in self-reflection to recognize their own part in the conflict, humans individually and cross-tribally unite, to diffuse conflict, by murdering the king or whoever appears to have the least support in the conflict, and then recognizing when the person has died how much less stress they have, and the unification leads to them eventually thinking of the deposed dead king as a god, i.e. deification or sanctification. Or, guilt is ascribed to an innocent third-party, whose murder permits the creation of a common unifying mythological underlay necessary for the foundation of human culture.
For Girard, religion and mythology were therefore necessary steps in human evolution to control the violence that arises from mimetic rivalry and unequal distribution of desirable things. Religion directed the scapegoat impulse on imaginary concepts, such as Satan or demons, the absence of which would see an increase in human conflict, according to Girard. His ideas ran sharply contrary to the post-modernism in vogue through most of his life, and his views of human nature were pessimistic in contrast with the mainstream currents of his time. Girard saw religion as an essential instrument of cohesion, believing that the primary purpose of sacred texts was to end the practice of human sacrifice through ritualistically surrogating for the behaviour triggered by scapegoat mechanism, adopting and expanding many of Nietzsche’s ideas.
Girard was professor at Johns Hopkins University from 1957 to 1981, and subsequently at Stanford University where he was named special fellow of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank based at Stanford.
For his contributions, in 2005 Rene Girard was named as one of the 40 “Les immortals” members of the Académie française.
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